We received a rare response to our last piece, from T Linden himself no less. True, T had descended from Olympus to tell us that we were wrong about everything, but still, some attention is better than no attention.
Anyway, one part of his comment caught my eye – “Second Life is a diverse community”. This is a sentiment that is often heard around the SL blogosphere, but how true is it? I did a quick review of the literature to see if there was much evidence one way or the other.
There are three metaverse-related publications that I read regularly (or semi-regularly) – the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and Game Studies – but I couldn’t remember ever having seen a quantatative study focussing specifically on the demography of SL in these journals, and sure enough nothing turned up when I searched their archives. A further search through the biomedical, psychological and sociological databases that I have access to drew a similar blank. The closest thing to a scientific study on this topic that I could find is this piece of work presented back in 2007 on the SL Survey blog. The Second Life wiki does have a page entitled “Demographic Studies”, but this is marketing data rather than academic work.
There are quite a few studies that look at other MMORPGs; three that are often cited are Griffiths et al (2003) Breaking the Stereotype: The Case of Online Gaming, Griffiths et al (2004) Demographic Factors and Playing Variables in Online Computer Gaming and Yee (2006) The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online Graphical Environments. Yee’s study is particularly impressive, drawing on data gathered from over 30,000 players over 3 years in his epic Daedalus Project.
The earliest qualitative work that I’m aware of in this area are the case descriptions of MUD users (who were mostly also psychotherapy clients) in Sherry Turkle‘s 1995 book Life on the Screen. A work focussing more on interpersonal and group dynamics is John Suler‘s 1996 book The Psychology of Cyberspace, particularly the section covering his in-depth study of the early graphical MUD The Palace.
More recent qualitative studies include Yee (2006) Motivations for Play in Online Games, Bessière et al (2007) The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft, Hussain and Griffiths (2009) The Attitudes, Feelings, and Experiences of Online Gamers: A Qualitative Analysis and Williams et al (2010) Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs. Good qualitative work dealing specifically with Second Life is harder to find; in fact I couldn’t find any at all. [Update: There is a good qualitative study; I had unaccountably overlooked Coming of Age in Second Life by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff.]
This brief review is not terribly systematic and certainly not comprehensive, but, having read these papers, as well as some of their references and citations, and a load of other work that I haven’t mentioned because it seemed only tangentially relevant, I feel I can hazard a qualified opinion on the question of diversity within the Second Life population, the qualification being that my impression is an overview based on a general familiarity with the source material rather than a rigorously evidence-based analysis.
SL residents may well vary along several dimensions, such as age, gender, nationality, education level and occupational status, but I suspect that a cluster analysis would resolve this seeming heterogenicity into a much smaller number of discrete groupings. Furthermore, I think that below this apparent diversity there may well be a large degree of psychological similarity; in other words, although residents may be different in terms of the demographic categories listed above, when one looks at their internal mental functioning they may have much more in common than one might expect.
If this last proposition is true then it should be possible to draw up a psychological profile of a typical Second Life resident, and to devise some sort of scale that would measure how likely it is that a subject would take to the SL experience, then see if that correlated with any particular personality types. I’m not aware that anyone has published any work like this, though I may well have overlooked it.
I’d be surprised if Linden Lab didn’t have a psychologist on their staff researching this kind of thing, since it would be very useful for marketing purposes, but I guess they wouldn’t want to put it into the public domain.
I have some ideas about the psychological features that one might expect to find in an average Second Life resident, and I’ll expand on these in a future post.